Production Designer Diane Lederman Discusses Her Work On “13 Reasons Why”

Production designer Diane Lederman and her team completely rebuilt much of the high school, including the gym, from the floor up in the series “13 Reasons Why”

Diane Lederman flipped between production designer on indie films to set decorating others, including Spike Lee’s “Summer of Sam” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” for many years.  When time permitted, she also worked as a set decorator on television series and specials, including “Phil Spector”, for which she earned a Prime Time Emmy nomination. Over the past five years, her work as a production designer has been seen in television series including “The Leftovers” and “The Americans.”  Her most recent production design credit is for the drama series “13 Reasons Why.”

Variety 411 recently caught up with Lederman to get some insights on her work for the Netflix original series. 

Variety 411: Creator Brian Yorkey is fairly new to the production world.  What was it about his project, “13 Reasons Why,” that attracted you?  

Diane Lederman:  It’s a rare opportunity to work on a project that has a social responsibility and moral compass.  This story tackles sensitive topics; cyber bullying, teen suicide, sexual harassment, acquaintance rape, issues which need to be brought into the public eye.  I believe the show will have a far reaching and positive impact.  When I read the first 2 scripts, which were beautifully written, I knew right away I wanted to work on the series.  I immediately envisioned what the show should look like.  Brian is a wonderfully talented writer and I was thrilled to be part of his first production venture outside the theater.

V411: I believe the script bounces around in time slightly.  Were there ways you organized the needs of the production design to accommodate the changes, or were they rather minor? 

DL: Lighting changes are the main cue for time shifts; warm for the past and cool for the present.  It was important to choose a color palette that worked for both lighting set ups.  We camera tested all the proposed color choices to make sure they would support this concept.

I believe a controlled color palette is integral to good production design.  As done for every project, much thought was put into choosing the color palette for this show.  Blue, a color often used by the impressionist painters to depict moodiness and emotion, was the predominant color for the series.  Shades of blue were the defining colors for both Liberty High and everything Clay-related.  Purple, a color associated with mystery and femininity was Hannah’s defining color.  The Crestmont colors were inspired by a mid century palette, to reinforce the reality of a vintage movie theater supposedly built in the early sixties.

V411: Were you using practical locations or was a lot of the work done on stages?  

DL: The series is shot in Northern California, chosen for its majestic landscape, evocative rolling fog, and quaint towns which dot the coast, so yes, much of the shooting was done on location.  However, the stringent demands of shooting a series dictated the need for recreating some of the locations we loved as film sets. Our makeshift sound stage was born from a one hundred thousand square foot warehouse on Mare Island, a former Naval Base in the North Bay.  Our school set was the main event.  Built on a twenty thousand square foot deck, the set consisted of the main hallways and lockers, classrooms, and the administration offices.  Most of the teenage bedrooms were also built on stage.

The high school is an aggregate of a practical location, a stage set, and a derelict recreation facility near the warehouse where we built our sets.  Analy High in Sebastapol became the core of our Liberty High but because access would be limited once the school year started, we needed to build as much of the school on our stage as possible. The Liberty High campus, the cafeteria and some classrooms were shot on location.  The hallways, administration offices, and many of the key classrooms (exact duplicates of existing locations) were built on stage. The administration offices are completely original.

In some ways it is more challenging to duplicate existing locations, especially when they are seen back to back.  I think we built very convincing copies, the sets in the latter episodes are indistinguishable from their location originals, which were used in the first two episodes. To create the school gym we completely renovated an existing gym structure, stripped, repainted and finished the floors, added the bleachers, painted the walls, added all the banners and dressing, which truly created a sense of history for our fictional school.

V411: For the practical locations, what were you looking for specifically that would aid in telling the story?  

DL:  We wanted the town, Liberty High, and all the locations to feel like they were anywhere, small town USA.  Places that everyone could identify with and recognize as familiar would support the subjective quality of the storytelling. Additionally, the idea that Hannah’s story, what happened to her could happen to anyone, anywhere, even in a charming small town at an all American High School, was important.

V411:  What were some other modification to practical locations your team handled?  

DL:  Most of the major locations were completely modified.  Though we planned early on to build Liberty High halls and classrooms on our stage, due to time constraints it was necessary to shoot the first 2 episodes completely at the practical location.  We stripped the hallways, repainted the lockers and customized all the wall dressing, bulletin boards, glass cases, and laid down the giant Liberty High floor medallion. We also added many wall and door plugs to areas within the existing halls altering the geography to better suit our stage build.  The facade was painted, and the entire campus was landscaped and rebranded with Liberty High logos and murals.

Monet’s, The Crestmont Movie Theater and Baker’s Pharmacy were complete original creations.  The town of Vallejo lays across a small bridge, just a stone’s throw from Mare Island.  We took over several store fronts on it’s now vacant but once grand main street to create our town.  We added trees, shrubs, and lots of planted flowers to the streets, awnings to store fronts, an outdoor cafe and a few murals, rendering a more charming and picturesque village.  One of my favorite additions is the mural Hannah and Clay sit in front of; our version of “Starry Night” reworked to include the Crestmont marquis.  Monet’s, The Crestmont Movie Theater, and the Baker’s Pharmacy all started as vacant stores, completely transformed into the versions seen in the show. These transformations were extraordinary. The before and after photos are very telling as to the amount of work that went into bringing these locations to life.

V411: Were there any environments that were particularly challenging to nail down for this series?

Finding the high school was very difficult, a daunting task as the school is almost as important a character in the story as any of the living breathing humans. The creative team all had preconceived notions of what Liberty High should like like, we all were invoking memories of our own high school past.  I scouted upwards of thirty schools before finding our winner; Analy High in Sebastopol. Offering a fantastic facade, a great main hallway, sizable cafeteria, charming campus, a newly laid athletic field, and so much more.  Our dreams were answered.  Monet’s and the Crestmont were challenging to find as well, which is why we decided to create them within empty store fronts.

V411: I noticed you have a background as a set decoratorWhat were you looking for in your set decorator, and what was your collaborative process like with the set decorator, specifically in creating an environment that brings young characters to life?  

Because of my background as a Set Decorator, decorating for me is admittedly not an easy job.  I look for someone who has a similar aesthetic, style, and inspirations. I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with great talent and most of the decorators I work with are now my close friends. 

Whether the script calls for a contemporary teenage bedroom or Eisenhower’s 1950’s Oval Office, my set design always starts with significant research.  These days, the amount of research available on the Internet is infinite and a most valuable tool.  We looked at real teenage bedrooms, as well as fictional ones, current music posters, high schoolers’ Facebook, Instagram, and other social media pages, and spoke with young adults to get inside their heads.  Visiting so many high schools while scouting locations afforded me a wide reaching insider’s view of what life as a high school student is like.  I took a lot of pictures, which provided great source material and inspiration for dressing the halls and classrooms.

V411: How involved were the producers/directors of the show in the creative decision process?  Did you have a lot of freedom and flexibility, or did they have specific ideas that you worked to support?

DL:  Our group was a very collaborative one and we made creative decisions together.  In addition to reviewing all the research, color renderings were created for all the major sets, whether built on stage or created on location, so that everyone would understand exactly what my proposed set design would look like and afford the opportunity to make changes or additions. Brian Yorkey was intimately involved in choosing the music posters that lined Clay’s bedroom walls.  Tom McCarthy and I worked extensively together on the floor plans for Monet’s, to provide the best angles for shooting the scenes there.  It was truly a joy to work with and learn from these two incredibly talented artists.

V411: You have been very busy in film and television.  What keeps you so involved in both mediums? 

DL: Working on a television series is very different then working on a feature film; they require somewhat different attention and a use of different skill sets.  Both mediums require huge amounts of prep work creating sets, however on feature films I’m able to spend much more time on the shooting sets, crafting what the camera sees while the sets are being shot.  Working on a television series does not allow for this as I am always scouting and prepping the next episode.  Research and design are paramount here; the vision has to be clearly communicated to your crew and you need a crew you can rely on to carry out that vision.  .

I try to choose projects that inspire creativity, furnish new challenges, and excite me in some way.  It’s very personal.